May 2, 2014
It’s kind of hard to believe that this morning I was cycling past a wall of double-decker buses on Waterloo Bridge…
It’s been a fun few days in London, and the Brompton has certainly earned its keep (it’s earned a bath too – let’s just say that the tow path from Richmond to Teddington isn’t really recommended for those hoping to arrive at their destination not splattered in mud from head to foot). It’s been the first trip in ages when I haven’t had to top up my oyster at all, and I’ve enjoyed the sensation of actually being the fastest thing on the roads at times, instead of the slowest (rural cycling, lovely as it is, is never the quickest option). I feel like I’ve experienced a wider spectrum of London cycling than I ever tried when I lived there: from a suburban school run, to jousting with traffic, to trying out semi-decent segregated infrastructure (thank you, Camden Council), to inhaling a bee in a deer park (on the whole, not one for the bucket list although if things go badly the ‘before you die’ part could be quite imminent. I am fine, before you ask. The bee, on the other hand, is not).
Fun as it’s been, it’s been even better to come home. Not only was I relieved to get on the train at all with all my limbs intact (nothing to do with the traffic – I thought I had lost my return ticket and was going to have to pay the standard walk-up fare of one arm plus one leg) but it was just bliss to cycle home with the late afternoon sunshine dappling through the trees and the birds all singing, and the verges starting to fill with flowers.
I now have a billion things to catch up with that I’ve promised people I would look at after POP. But hopefully there will be a little time now to stop and smell the flowers…
May 1, 2014
No time (too much gadding, sorry) to do a proper post … but here are some brief lessons learnt from my latest London adventures.
* When it’s a tube strike, and you’re filtering past a roughly mile-long tailback on a rat run towards Finsbury Park, it’s probably kind not to look *too* happy. Those drivers are already having a pretty horrible day, and you’re about to take a massive traffic-free shortcut through the park. Be nice, people
* London is only really foggy in Dickens novels and Americans’ imaginations. Except when it actually is foggy. Lucky I’d brought my lights. Bizarrely, one of them managed to hop of the handlebars of my Brompton and into my jacket pocket on the way. I’ve still no idea how this happened
* The school run is perfectly possible in the rain – especially if you have a spare pair of tights for your niece to change into when she arrives.
* There’s just no space for cycling on London’s roads.
April 29, 2014
So here I am in That London, having safely negotiated my way up to Palmers Green. I had to get myself first to the Holloway Road, which wasn’t too bad, at least until you get to Islington and the nice bike contraflows disappear and are replaced by a 20 mph zone, which is obviously awesome and everything, but not if you still end up at the wrong end of a one way street and having to cycle around some massive one-way system playing ‘please don’t kill me if you can help it Mr. Bus Driver’.*
Once done there, I decided to avoid the trains even though they were running, because even a folded Brompton is a bit too much bike to be squeezing onto a massively packed carriage full of Picadilly line refugees – and besides it’s actually easier to cycle the whole way to Palmer’s Green than it is to lug a Brompton through Highbury and Islington Station. I made my way northwards following a reasonably non scary route up to Alexandra Palace, from where I thought I knew way. Having made only a few wrong turns and stopped to check my A to Z hardly more than a dozen times, I found myself in the back streets north of Ally Pally consulting my map and wondering how pigeons manage to instinctively know where north is when I can’t even tell with the help of a map and two years in the Guides (there aren’t many trees with lichen on them in North London). A passing cyclist asked me if I needed any help and fortunately he was going my way because – and this is really the subject of tonight’s rant – because the way I thought I was going to go has been scuppered. I used to cut along the back streets and cross the North Circular at a handy pedestrian crossing, but apparently they have widened the road there since last summer and removed the crossing, replacing it with some topiary instead. Following my guide, we had to get onto Green Lanes (if you’re not familiar with North London this is neither green nor a lane but a standard issue scary London A road) and joust with the buses for road space to cross the North Circular on one of those head-down-and-pedal-like-all-the-hounds-of-hell-are-after-you junctions.*
I really cannot believe that they are taking pedestrian crossings out, in this day and age. Apparently, the Enfield mini-Holland funding will turn Green Lanes into, if not actually a green lane, but at least somewhere where you get your own space on the road without having to share it with double decker buses (which I swear have got bigger since I left London: were they always basically blocks of flats on wheels?) as long as the shopkeepers of Green Lanes don’t have their way and scupper it for the Great God Parking. Frankly, it can’t come soon enough, but even so, they’ve got to reinstate that crossing, if only for the pedestrians. Come on London, what on earth were you thinking?
Tomorrow, I think I’ll just take the train…
*If you’re reading this, Mum, I got off and walked at that bit
March 28, 2014
… when you find your train journey enlivened by a stranger’s life story. I caught the Bigtown connection by the skin of my teeth this afternoon, and slid into one of the table seats beside what I took to be a mother and teenage daughter. The girl was soon chatting away merrily about the Brompton, the train service, her international gymnastics career (now retired), her As in maths, English and child care, her three-year-old daughter, the various fights she had got into in school after the announcement of her engagement, her plans for this evening (chicken curry cooked by her fiance’s sister if you’re interested), the fact that you can no longer get a half on the bus if you’ve got your own toddler in tow, and much much more. It soon became apparent that the older woman was not her mother – indeed, she was a stranger too, and as bemused as I was, as well as being slightly concerned. The barrage continued until the stop before Bigtown where the girl got off, with a cheery ‘see you later’. It was certainly an eye-opener and I suppose it beats one of those overheard telephone conversations that used to enliven my morning commute down in London, although it wasn’t much less one-sided…
You also know you’ve been in London when you come back feeling like you’re coming down with a lurgy. What with the public transport, all the people, school-age children and the pollution, my isolated country immune system just doesn’t stand a chance…
March 27, 2014
I’m gadding about a bit at the moment – spent Tuesday night pretending to be an expert at the NewCycling AGM (I don’t think they rumbled me) and then yesterday I came down to that London where I had to get myself, bags and Brompton from Kings Cross to Wormwood Scrubs, as you do. The obvious answer would have been the tube, but I had plenty of time and the Brompton remains an awkward travelling companion in anything other than bike mode. A quick glance at the map (eek!), consultation with Google directions bicycle mode (double eek – since when do A roads count as bicycle friendly, Google map people?) and finally an appeal to Twitter (aha) revealed that I could get there almost entirely along the canal towpaths. Somehow in my imagination London has developed a semi-tropical climate in the years since I used to live there so the prospect of an afternoon gliding along in warm spring sunshine beckoned.
My train arrived a little late into Kings Cross, where they have done something very peculiar to the space-time fabric – possibly opening the portal at Platform 9 and 3/4 – but I found my way out heading north and quickly found the canal where a brand new plaza gives access to the tow path to pedestrians, very adventurous wheelchair users, and Danny Mackaskill
What were they thinking?
Consultation with a passing cyclist revealed that yes, that was the way down for bikes too and after negotiating a mere million chicanes past the moored boats (fair enough, I suppose) and wheeled the bike through Camden Lock market, I was soon gliding along as I had hoped, albeit sans spring sunshine and through what felt very like south west Scotland rain.
It was still magical to pedal along in peace beneath the busy grind of London life, past gleaming mansions and the zoo, almost alone apart from some very fancy looking ducks. It was especially magical as I could hear the roar of the traffic on the roads I wasn’t having to negotiate. I nodded hello to the few oncoming yellow-jacketed cyclists I encountered who uniformly ignored me (obviously – how could they see me without my hi vis?) and the pedestrians, who didn’t, and got some very detailed instructions from a resident in one of the boats on how to make the interchange from Regents Canal to the Grand Union which I still managed to mess up by ending up on the private side rather than the hoi polloi’s public towpath side. Then it was back up another flight of steps with a reluctant Brompton in tow (Bromptons with fully laden baskets don’t really do wheeling ramps) and enough on-street cycling to remind me that – in the great scale of things – bus lanes really aren’t cycling infrastructure, although at least they don’t have flights of steps to negotiate.
And then it was home via the tube, with my now folded companion making itself as awkward as possible (stuck in the tube gate, getting in the way, becoming heavier and heavier on the apparently three-mile walk betwen the entrance to Willesden Junction and the platform) reminding me why on the whole, bike is best.
January 28, 2014
I don’t know how I’ve managed to get to the ripe old age of 44 without ever trying yoga – especially as I was humiliated as a child by a school gym report saying I had a ‘weak but flexible body’ which my family thought was hilarious and has never been forgotten and I thought was a bit unnecessary, frankly (and who gives six-year-olds gym reports anyway?). I suppose when I was growing up yoga was still a bit alternative and hippyish, and by the time it had become just another reason to go shopping for accessories I had taken up pilates which seemed to involve similar amounts of bendy-stretchiness without having to embrace a whole eastern philosophy. But as time has worn on and I’ve failed to do anything about booking myself a pilates class up here (there are waiting lists), yoga has started to look more appealing. Apart from anything else, I am now a bit alternative and hippyish myself, and suddenly the whole meditative aspect (if not the actual philosophy) is becoming a plus rather than a minus in my mind. So when a friend suggested I join her at her gentle, beginners, and (most importantly) pay-as-you-go yoga class, just as my neck and shoulders were giving me gyp, I decided to take it as a sign and see how it went.
I was a bit nervous that I’d make some horrible faux pas or just be hopeless but fortunately a welcoming teacher and the aforementioned weak but still mostly quite flexible body meant I managed okay, especially as doing a mid-week morning class means I’m the youngest in the room, although it would help if my glasses didn’t keep falling off. And – combined with the fact that I have finally managed to get my bike serviced (it’s been even harder than getting a GP appointment, frankly) – the ride home has been lovely and fluid with me and the bike both moving like well-oiled machines. To keep this going, I’ve been promising myself I will stretch out, yoga fashion, after every ride (cycling is brilliant for you in so many ways, but it does tend to tighten up the hamstrings) and keep the bike a bit cleaner and the chain lubricated. Let’s see how long either of those resolutions last…
January 14, 2014
I’m currently reading The Happy City by Charles Montgomery about how we can make ourselves happier (and greener and healthier) by redesigning our cities. It ticks all sorts of boxes for me: from a cameo appearance by Enrique Penalosa on a bike to plenty of love for the sort of mixed human-scale urbanism so eloquently championed by Jane Jacobs, as well as putting into words some of the things I find a bit disturbing about visiting Colorado, however bright and glorious the winter weather.
I haven’t finished reading it yet, but one thing did stand out in the chapter on what makes humans happy. One of the key ingredients of happiness, apparently, is the feeling that you can trust the people around you and happiness researchers measure it by asking people what they think the likelihood is that their wallet would be returned to them by a stranger if they dropped it where they lived.
Now, as it happens, most people massively underestimate the chances of getting their wallet back – what the question really measures, indirectly, is how well they know their neighbours and how often they interact positively with the people around them. Improving people’s happiness, therefore, includes basically re-engineering the way we live so that we can have lots of friendly interactions with other people, which means doing things like getting rid of sprawl, shortening commutes, creating green spaces in cities and rolling back the dominance of the car – all brilliant and worthwhile things but a) a bit long term and b) unlikely when you have a government whose transport policy consists of building dual carriageways between every town in Scotland and then when they are finished with that possibly thinking about some cycle paths (I really wish I was making this up).
Obviously, I will continue to campaign for such a re-imagining of our cities and towns but fortunately there is a shortcut for those of us wishing to be happy in our lifetimes – you can be me, and just leave your wallet and other assorted valuables in a trail behind you wherever you go, and discover first hand the honesty of the people around you. It’s a slightly high-risk strategy, perhaps, but imagine your surprise and delight at getting a letter in the post informing you that your wallet which disappeared on the train on the way to the US over Christmas, has turned up in a lost property depot in Huddersfield. This means I shall soon be reunited with not just my (by now cancelled – I’m optimistic, not completely naive) bank cards, but my driver’s licence (I think I have a use for it; it will come to me eventually…), WWT membership card, Advanced Open Water diver’s qualification (may come in handy if it keeps raining) and, most important of all, every library card I’ve ever been issued…